The Life and Times of Skokie
The story of the Holocaust was not yet deemed suitable for prime-time television—it wasn’t until 1978 that the mini-series Holocaust would air, provoking its inclusion in public discourse. It wasn’t part of the curriculum in public schools, and even in my Hebrew school it didn’t surface. We kids knew, of course, that our parents had lived through the Holocaust, that we had no living grandmothers or grandfathers. But few parents sat down to recount their stories. How could they make sense of such a thing or find words that adequately expressed it? And how could they bear to relive the experience?
As I look back on it, what seemed a typical childhood at the time was anything but. As a kid, I presumed that everyone’s mother stayed up all night, sitting on the floor of the darkened living room, peering out the window, keeping watch. Didn’t all moms sleep with a meat cleaver hidden under the pillow? Didn’t all dads wake up repeatedly through the night and down another shot of whisky to fall back asleep? Weren’t all families forbidden to use the shower in the bathroom?
In retrospect, of course, the cause of these bizarre behaviors is obvious, but at the time, who knew? Certainly not me.
The traumas that roiled our tiny, one-bath ranch house rumbled in other survivors’ homes, too. “If I didn’t have a nightmare, my wife did,” says Bill Pineless, a survivor who still lives in Skokie. “She, for no reason, would get out from bed and run into another room and shout.” Another survivor, Sam Newman, recalls that during one nightmare, he fought so hard to fend off the dogs he believed were attacking him that he kicked the bedroom wall and broke a toe.
Skokie, it turns out, was less idyllic than I had thought.
Whatever outward tranquility the survivors found in Skokie was abruptly shattered when neo-Nazi Frank Collin banged on Skokie’s front door.
In 1968, Collin had founded in Chicago what would become the National Socialist Party of America. A half-Jewish son of a Dachau survivor, Collin was a mustachioed man standing five-feet-eight inches high and weighing about 165 pounds. As a result, the 24-year-old, who wore jackboots and adorned his brown shirts and belt buckles with swastikas and other Nazi regalia, vaguely resembled a chubby parody of Adolf Hitler. Collin claimed to have experienced a “conversion” at the age of seven when he watched a newsreel of the Fuhrer mesmerizing a crowd and then saw a swastika at his school the following day.
Collin opened his party’s headquarters in 1970 in a South Side storefront he dubbed Rockwell Hall after American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell, who had been assassinated in Arlington, Virginia, in 1967. Together, Collin and his small pack of followers marched in Chicago’s Marquette Park, demonstrating to draw attention to their belief that whites were superior to blacks and Jews, and provoking counter demonstrations. When the Chicago Park District began to require the Nazis to post six-figure sums in public liability insurance, Collin upped the ante. With the help of the Illinois ACLU, he challenged the insurance requirements in court and, in 1976, began distributing flyers in Chicago suburbs where Jews lived, most notably in Skokie.
“WE ARE COMING!” said the leaflets, which carried swastikas and caricatures of Eastern European Jews being assaulted. “I hope they’re terrified,” Collin told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I hope they’re shocked. Because we’re coming to get them again. I don’t care if someone’s mother or father or brother died in the gas chambers. The unfortunate thing is not that there were six million Jews who died. The unfortunate thing is that there were so many Jewish survivors.”
To the survivors of Skokie, the Nazis were back.